The Young Girl Who Became Don Quixote (If Not a Little Better)

Stephan Haff on Teaching, Storytelling, and Bravery

After class, as yesterday, Sarah is sitting and drawing with her pencil inside her copy of Don Quixote. I ask her if I may see what she has drawn.

“Are those doors?” I ask.

“Yes, the desert is full of doors,” she answers.

“Doors to what?”

“Doors to nothing.”

“Standing on the sand?”

“Yes.”

“Why,” I ask, “are there doors in the desert?”

“They are traps. You open the door and the Ice People grab you from below. They pull you down into their underworld.”

“Why do they live below the desert?”

“Otherwise they would melt. Their world is a refrigerator, a giant refrigerator as big as the desert, under the desert. That’s where they keep the children.”

I point to a large rectangle. “Is this the refrigerator?”

“Yes.”

There is silence.

“I went there,” she tells me.

“You went to the giant refrigerator?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“Last night.”

“How?”

“I can go places when I pray.”

“How does that work?”

“I light a candle for la Virgen de Guadalupe, I go on my knees and I ask her, ‘Thanks for giving us food and classes to learn stuff, because in the future it’s going to be tough and people might try to conquer our world and we need to be ready. And please let my mommy stay with me. And I always want to be young, even when I’m old, please.’ Then I say, ‘I pray to go to somewhere,’ and I go. I went to Bethlehem and saw the baby named Jesus in a barn. I also shrank myself and talked to insects. Last night Guadalupe let me visit the kids in the giant refrigerator under the desert.”

We take turns reading our stories out loud as the group listens. All of the kids write about their mothers.

“Wow! What happened?”

Maggie arrives.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” says Sarah, and waves good-bye.

*

“The Rescuing Song” is also based on an early scene in the novel where Quixote, having been viciously beaten by a traveling bully, lies bruised on the dusty desert road, unable to stand. A neighbor passes by and stops to help. After washing the dust off of Quixote’s face, the neighbor carries the old man home, but first waits until the dark of night can protect the fallen hero from the unsympathetic eyes of the gossiping village.

The kids are in awe of this anonymous, unconditional, unrewarded kindness. “It’s like my mom,” says Percy. “She is patient with my tantrums and she always brings me books.”

To prepare for lyric writing, we all write in silence for 15 minutes, telling stories from our own lives related to the neighbor’s actions. Then we take turns reading our stories out loud as the group listens. All of the kids write about their mothers. Their mothers wash for them, cook for them, put them to bed with a gentle hand and a soft voice, stay awake on nights when the children are sick, placing a cold washcloth on a hot forehead and whispering “Shhhhh”—the sound the child first hears inside the mother’s body, the swishing of warm amniotic fluid in the unborn ears—and the mothers hug and hug and hug away the fear and the anger and the falling. No mother is paid for doing all of this; no mother is famous for being a mother.

The only child not to read is Sarah. For the first two months of the Traveling Adventures project, she has been quiet during class. When asked to read her writing to the group she has shaken her head, “No.”

Sarah has been coming to the Still Waters writing class on Saturdays since the spring, but she has yet to read aloud her own work, always asking a volunteer or another kid to read for her and to protect her privacy by not revealing her name. The Quixote group is about half the size of the big writing class, and there’s nowhere for her to hide anymore, so she simply refuses.

Then one day in private, during a break, Sarah informs me that at her school, “They’re kind of rough on people. Everything you say is only right or wrong.” She tells me that she sits at her desk in class, never moves, and never says anything. The school sent a social worker to inspect the house and interview her parents. The social worker asked if there is violence at home, but there isn’t any.

Sarah is just hiding, holding her mother’s leg when faced with a stranger, or hanging onto her desk in class. At school, she doesn’t know what is coming next, play is not allowed, a vague threat of punishment for being “wrong” fills the air like humidity, and, in her innocence, she is afraid.

How do I help Sarah to be brave? I don’t want to force her to read to the group; that could inflict trauma.

I remember a story my paternal grandfather, “Papa,” once told me, a story that guides my teaching and illuminates this problem. At age ten, in 1917, he had won a bamboo fishing pole in a small-town raffle, way up in the mountains of northern Idaho. His father told him he would need to wrap the pole in thread, an intricate procedure requiring great patience. His father said that he himself needed to rewrap his own pole, too. So they sat side by side on the porch and wound thread around their bamboo poles. My grandfather added, at the end of the story, that, looking back, he suspected that his father didn’t really need to rewrap his own fishing pole.

Today, remembering Papa’s side-by-side education, and my father’s tendency, as long as I can remember, to read whatever book I happened to be reading so we could think side by side, I sit next to Sarah as we write and, when it’s my turn, I read to the group, showing her the way by making myself vulnerable.

“There was a time,” I say, looking down at my paper, “when I thought nobody loved me. I called the city’s phone number for depression. A woman answered and said her name was Sarah.”

Our little Sarah at Still Waters looks up and there is that face again, eyes and mouth wide open at the coincidence of names.

“She asked how she could help me and I began to cry—my mother had raised me to cry, telling me that whenever I needed to I could let the tears fall and keep going until whatever was stopping me was washed away—and I couldn’t stop crying for a long, long time. I cried so hard I choked and coughed and boogers came out of my nose—” the word boogers makes the kids laugh “—but Sarah did not hang up the phone. I kept repeating, ‘Nobody loves me.’

“Two hours of conversation later, after telling that grown-up Sarah that I had not left my apartment for days, eating only boiled eggs and saltine crackers and food left outside my door by friends I would not allow to enter, I agreed to go to the hospital.

“At the hospital, the psychiatrist, Heather, after listening to me for a long time—” I don’t tell the kids about the bandage on my wrist “—told me she would rather have two broken legs than have what I had inside me. She promised me that I would feel better, but I would need to work very hard for a long time, with the help of a therapist, to understand my story. And she was right. The more I told my story the better I understood myself, and the more peaceful I felt in my heart.”

“My mommy was sad for the tiger and sad for herself. She missed Mexico out in the fields. She missed the dirt between her toes and the wide-open heavens above.

I want the kids, especially the reticent Sarah sitting beside me, to know that here, in this room, in our sanctuary, it is safe to be vulnerable—Latin for “able to be wounded”—because here, nobody will wound you. Here, you can breathe. No one will drop from the sky and carry you away. After weeks of refusing and listening and watching with those bottomless black eyes as other children and grown-ups read their stories, on this one day, this day of vulnerability, Sarah, daring beyond daring, raises her hand, is called on, and begins to read: “My mommy rode across the desert on the back of a tiger. That’s how she came here from Mexico.”

At first nobody speaks. Then they can’t stop asking questions. These questions are born not from doubt, but a love of adventure.

“Really?”

“Yes, really. She told me in Spanish at bedtime.”

“How long did it take them to get across the desert?”

“Two weeks.”

“How did they cross the border?”

“They came to a very high wall. It went as far away as they could see to the left and to the right. The tiger said, ‘I can’t jump over the wall. You need to carry on alone now.’

“My mommy said, ‘I know you can do it. You have very strong legs.’

“My mommy held on to the fur of the tiger’s neck. The tiger moved its head up and down, and crouched and wiggled its butt—” the kids all laugh; every time they hear the word “butt” or “but” they need to laugh “—then it jumped over the wall. My mommy almost touched the moon.

“The tiger said, ‘I did it!’

“My mommy said, ‘Yes, you did it for sure!’”

I say, “My cat moves her head up and down before she jumps up onto the refrigerator.”

“Wow!” says Sarah. “That’s high up!”

The kids have more questions. The room is jumping.

“How did they eat?”

“The tiger knew where to find water and rabbits and cactus fruit and how to step away from snakes that were hiding under the sand.”

“How did they get to Brooklyn?”

“They walked all the way to Brooklyn, through the desert and the forest and the fields and the ghost towns and the swamps.” Sarah speaks faster and louder as she goes, releasing a horizontal avalanche of words.

“Nobody tried to stop them?”

“No. When they reached the City, they stayed on dark streets with not a lot of people. The shadows protected them.”

“Nobody saw the tiger?”

“Yes, strangers noticed the tiger and they were afraid, so they called Animal Control. The tiger fought back,” she says, rising up a little bit from her chair, “with its mighty paws and long, sharp teeth, but there were too many Animal Control humans with nets and ropes and a dart that made the tiger sleep.

“My mommy said, ‘Bye,’ and she cried. Her tears made lines on her dusty face.”

Sarah is now speaking in tongues, possessed and transported by the visions she has inherited from her mother.

“My mommy was sad for the tiger and sad for herself. She missed Mexico out in the fields. She missed the dirt between her toes and the wide-open heavens above, more full of stars than darkness. Here, in Brooklyn, the buildings blocked most of the sky, the electric lights erased the stars, and her feet, still bare, were punished by the unforgiving concrete.

“The tiger cried, too, quietly, as it was falling asleep, and said, ‘Good-bye.’ Animal Control took the beast away in a cage inside a truck.”

There is an awestruck silence in the room.

“What language did the tiger speak?” asks Lily.

“Spanish. My mom didn’t know English then.”

“Time’s up for today,” I say. “Thank you, Sarah. Good job, everyone. See you next time.”

As the kids walk out the door they look stunned, as if they had just met God.

*

The group could choose a teenager to play the role of Kid Quixote, someone who can more readily handle the often antiquated and sophisticated language of Cervantes.

“No,” says Lily the day we begin to speak about casting that role, more than a year into the project. “Teenagers are too ironic.”

“What is ironic?” asks Felicity.

“It means acting like you’re cool,” says Lily. “Quixote isn’t trying to be cool.”

“You could do it,” says Felicity, turning to me.

“But I’m already the landlord.”

“You could switch parts.”

“Why me?”

“You’re his same age and you like to help people. And you have problems with your mind.”

“That’s all true,” I say. I have bipolar depression and have survived dizzying grandiosity—the belief that I, from a mountaintop or even from the moon, was meant to rescue everyone in need—and the great fall that followed.

Her vulnerability, based on her belief in people’s basic goodness and her trust in her neighbors, is what makes Sarah a great leader and our Kid Quixote.

“As much as I would love the attention,” says Joshua, and everyone laughs, “I think our Quixote needs to be a little kid.”

Lily agrees. “Quixote is innocent. He has the heart of a child.”

“And,” adds Alex, carrying us to our destiny, “He believes that the stories he reads are real, the way little kids believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.”

“What do you mean?” asks Sarah, suddenly alarmed.

“Exactly my point,” says Alex. “When people grow up, they stop believing.”

Rebecca declares, “Sarah would be perfect.”

I ask why.

“She’s little and it would be funny for her to rescue me from a grown-up.”

The image of tiny Sarah stepping between me and Rebecca to stop the whipping, looking up at me, the big bully, and bringing me to my knees with her boldness is unlikely and very brave. It’s an icon to rally around, inspired by her real-life courage in coming out of hiding and reading a story to the class.

“I’ve also noticed,” I say, “that Sarah is an excellent listener in class. She never interrupts anyone and her eyes follow the speaker. The look on her face, the way it changes depending on what the person is saying, tells me she’s giving all of her attention. When you’re acting you need to listen to your partners onstage.”

“And,” says Rebecca, with her usual assertiveness, “she’s a girl. Girl power!”

There is another reason Sarah is playing Kid Quixote and leading us. After a writing session earlier in the second year, the kids were taking turns reading their stories aloud, stories about what is beautiful and what is difficult about being a girl, while everyone listened. When it was Sarah’s turn, she read a brief story about how she hates wearing dresses.

Then Miriam, the 11-year-old girl sitting next to her—usually a kind and sheltering person—told the class that Sarah had also written another story that day. Sarah didn’t want to read the other story to everyone. Rebecca, also out of character, grabbed the unread story and prepared to read it to the group. I stopped her and told her to give back the paper and apologize. Each girl said, “I’m sorry, Sarah,” in turn.

Sarah sat very still and silent. She was visibly hurt and didn’t know where to rest her eyes. The other students bowed their heads.

Her vulnerability, based on her belief in people’s basic goodness and her trust in her neighbors, is what makes Sarah a great leader and our Kid Quixote. She would never tell anyone what to do, but with her humility she guides the class. I had read to the kids what Lao Tzu says, from 2,500 years ago, in verse 66 of the Tao Te Ching, “The reason the sea can govern a hundred rivers is that it has mastered being lower.” Regardless of their ages, the children and grown-ups flow down toward Sarah like rivers to the sea.

She plays Kid Quixote, a character obsessed with the novel by Cervantes and believes herself a hero destined to rescue the victims of injustice and defend the defenseless. She repeatedly falls down, and she always gets back up. She’s just a kid, but she never surrenders. This is, in Sarah’s innocence, funny.

Who she is, her unwavering belief in her mission—“To rescue the world,” as she says in the very first scene—despite its impossible odds, and her loyalty to adventure and to what is right and good—all of this delights audiences, and their laughter encourages her to keep going.

This is the how the uprising begins.

__________________________________

Excerpt from Kid Quixotes: A Group of Students, Their Teacher, and the One-Room School Where Everything Is Possible by Stephen Haff. Published by HarperOne. Copyright © 2020 HarperCollins.

Stephen Haff
Stephen Haff
Stephen Haff is the founder of Still Waters in a Storm, a one-room school serving Spanish-speaking immigrant children in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Previously, he taught English at a public school in Bushwick for nearly a decade. He earned his MFA in Theater Studies at Yale, and has made a living directing plays and writing essays for the Village Voice and other publications. Stephen lives in Queens with his wife, children’s book author Tina Schneider, and their three children.





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